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Why bad design can actually be good

Ken Carbone, Ayse Birsel, and Allan Chochinov discuss how bad design can prompt creative breakthroughs—and what even constitutes ‘bad design’ in the first place.

Why bad design can actually be good
[Source Photo: EddWestmacott/iStock]
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When a design doesn’t work, it often draws more attention to itself than when it works perfectly. A wobbly shopping cart, a flimsy potato peeler, a puzzling highway sign: These are common nuisances. The stakes increase when “bad design” results in a confusing election ballot that disrupts the democratic process or when an ineffective design critically impacts lives in large segments of society.

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But can “bad design” be a force for good design? Does it drive design professionals to push back against design ineptitude?

When presented with a client’s “bad design,” a designer’s internal alarm is triggered to correct course, deliver a result that really works, and, in the process, heighten the client’s understanding of good design. Because there is no shortage of bad design in the world, designers have ample opportunities to exercise their ethical principles, intellectual curiosity, and creative talents to generate high-performance designs for the expanding needs of contemporary life.

To expand on this thesis, I invited two of my favorite design experts to join me in a conversation. Ayse Birsel is a celebrated designer recognized as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business. Allan Chochinov is the chair and cofounder of the MFA in Products of Design Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts and a partner and editor-at-large of Core77. Here, they discuss the inherent value of design that makes most people cringe.

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Ken Carbone: Do you agree that “bad design” is a primal motivator for designers to do their best work? What are your thoughts about this basic idea, and does it affect your design approach?

Ayse Birsel: Can you tell what is good and bad plumbing? I bet you can. Bad plumbing is when your toilet doesn’t flush or your pipes leak. You know when to call a plumber, and you know pretty quickly if they did a good job.

Same thing with law. You know when you need a lawyer. You know pretty quickly if they’re good or not.

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Design isn’t easy like that. Most people who hire designers don’t know what is good or bad design or why they need good design.

You need to know what questions to ask to evaluate good or bad design.

Emotion—Is the design lovable? Does it bring you joy? Does it make you feel understood? Does it make you feel safe? Does it give you a sense of wonder? Does it make you feel better with it versus without it?

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Intellect—Is the design smart? Does it solve the right problems? Does it solve old problems in new ways? Is it simple? Does it tell a beautiful story intelligently?

Physical—Is the design safe? Is it aesthetically beautiful and well-balanced? Does it rest your eyes? Can you describe it easily on the phone?

Spirit—Does the design have soul? Is it humanistic? Is it designed for people’s benefit (in other words, is it user-centered, or is there another focus like profit?) Is it honest? Empathic? Inclusive? Is it good for the earth? Is it courageous? Allan, what do you think?

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Allan Chochinov: I love the expansion of the considerations of design, Ayse. Years ago, I had a student—a practicing architect returning to grad school to shift his career toward industrial design—who was pushing back on some criticism I was giving on a one-week thesis assignment. I was arguing precisely along the lines that you offer—that there were other considerations in design beyond the formal. I remember him becoming indignant, saying, “well, you know—the design fundamentals are point, line, plane, volume, texture, and color.”

Literally, he said that as if he had recited it a hundred times. “Really?” I replied (and I admit to getting a bit sarcastic here), “those are the design fundamentals? What about usability, what about sustainability, what about affordability, or charm, or access, ethics, or politics, or point of view?” And he dug his heels in, to the point of absurdity. Not only did he not possess in his design operating system any contemporary design considerations, but he actually believed that this magic set of measuring tools from a half-century ago were, well . . . universal and absolute. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever gotten over that incident.

And while I think it’s true that design’s basic promise has been to “make things better” and to “improve our lives,” the arena in which all of this is taking place has become quite vast.

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Further, at the exact same time, the slices are becoming very, very thin. Designers talk about “surfacing and addressing pain points” on the one hand, and with the other, they talk about “disrupting entire industries.” I think it’s charming to still talk about the OXO Good Grip as the exemplar design case study (and indeed, it’s still effective when talking old-school industrial design principles with students), but where design might show up in and around our lives is much more pervasive and more nuanced.

Now, that’s not to say that today’s design is necessarily “better,” but the metrics—and the measuring sticks—have expanded. The materials we can employ (such as information or policy as design materials), the objectives we reach for (social equity or carbon capture, for examples), and the contemporary methods we employ (like co-creation or computational design) have matured. Is there still bad design all around us? Of course. But design negotiates an enormous number of compromises, and the original intent—and indeed the original “author”—can often get lost. As in art, we want to judge a work by its intent. And if a designer intends to “disintermediate the medical testing industry,” then the question of “good design” or “bad design” transforms radically. At a certain point, of course, these questions become ethical and political. Truth be told, I think they are always ethical and political, but at a large enough scale, this becomes inarguable.

It’s true that it’s not a simple question of good or bad because it depends on an individual’s perspective, context, and an evolving set of metrics. To that point, can each of you cite an example that embodies those principles, that transforms something from bad to good design? Maybe an example that hasn’t received much attention?

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AC: I’d like to give the example of a product—still in development—that addresses a very difficult subject: the rape kit. One of our alums, Antya Waegemann, spent her thesis year researching and prototyping several proposals for redesigning the rape kit, but as you might imagine, this is as challenging a “design problem” as it gets. Not only are rape kits not standardized across the United States, they’re not even standardized across state municipalities.

The average rape kit in New York City, for example, contains 10 to 15 steps, over 60 individual parts, and can take up to 10 hours to complete. There are myriad moments when the procedure, protocol, industrial design, package design, user journey, and change of custody can break down. It’s really a design disaster at so many moments. Even with sexual assaults happening every 73 seconds in the U.S., only 30% of cases are reported, and less than 1% ever see a conviction.

Antya began by designing prototypes for multiple stakeholders, and is now focusing on transforming the entire reporting and evidence collection process—including a redesigned kit that improves collection for healthcare providers, and a digital platform that allows victims to take control of the process and take part in the examination. She has won many awards, fellowships, and other recognition for the work—including Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas—but the project is still likely years from seeing the light of day.

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I bring this example up because the old rape kit design is truly bad—dehumanizing, overwhelming, disastrous information architecture, graphic design, and branding, and almost entirely analog. But to get to “good design” it will take a multifarious approach requiring expertise and buy-in from everyone from digital packaging vendors, to policymakers, to medical personnel, to law enforcement. Need I say that this is the kind of arena where design really needs to focus its talents and attention?

[Photo: Hark/courtesy of the author]
That’s a powerful example of a bad to good design transformation that’s critically important. Designers are quick to claim credit for our world-changing ideas, but our job isn’t done until we have changed the minds of those who have power, will, and influence to initiate change. I truly hope that Antya’s design becomes a reality.

AB: I’d like to give an example that combines two areas I have become passionate about: older adults and women.

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Sally Mueller is the cofounder of Womaness, a product line for perimenopause and menopausal women that just came out. Mueller’s idea started with a doctor’s visit at Mayo Clinic when her doctor told her most of her complaints—hot flashes, headaches, sleep disruptions–were due to perimenopause and wished her good luck. Mueller, a former Target executive and chief brand officer for Clique Brands, realized she knew little about menopause. When she started looking into it, she found there was a huge gap in the market. Products, solutions, and good design were lacking.

In our research and codesign with women 50-plus, we also found women asking for and not finding good design for their needs. We feel not heard and not seen.

Good design isn’t always a response to bad design but filling a gap in a consumer’s life, one that isn’t addressed. Menopause is still a taboo in our society. As women over 50, we feel left to our own devices.

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And yet, what we need is designers with empathy, optimism, holistic thinking, and “what if” thinking—all foundational principles of design—to help us move in and through this life stage with grace and ease.

Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of others and feeling their pain or discomfort. Women need designers who understand what it feels like to have a hot flash while you’re in the middle of a conversation, what it means to have a dry vagina, not because you lack desire but because your hormones are changing.

Optimism is the ability to see these challenges as things that can be overcome. Menopause is not a failure, and older women cannot be reduced to its life-altering effects. There are millions of women who feel they’ve been left to their own devices. We need the optimism of good design to help us live a good life.

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Holistic thinking is seeing the big picture to connect the dots in new ways. Menopause is only one stage of a woman’s life. When you map all of the stages of our lives, you realize as women, most of our life thresholds include pain—pain of your period, pain of losing your virginity, pain of childbirth. Part of the reason women take menopause in stride is that this is what women do. Design can say it doesn’t have to be so.

Asking “what if” questions is about having an open mind, knowing that often some of our best ideas come from counterintuitive places, failures, or even bad ideas. What if designers saw menopause as an opportunity to help women live well?

Sally Mueller’s “what if” question was doing something about the problem. Womaness isn’t just one product but a collection of products ranging from creams and supplements to liners and a vibrator. Where most of us either complained or adapted to our predicament, she created a human-centered experience from scratch.

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Bloomberg just featured Sally Mueller as a pioneer and put the market opportunity for menopausal women at $600 billion. Ignoring the opportunity for good design is a huge miss for designers and companies.

[Photo: Womaness/courtesy of the author]
What you offer here, Ayse, broadens the definition of bad design, including disregarding a real need that affects more than half the population.

My final question is about the role technology has played in transforming a product, service, or behavior into something more useful.

AB: I can’t help but think about how technology saved us during COVID-19. We were able to shelter in place and still have some semblance of human contact, productivity, and joy through technology. Work continued online. We were able to connect with our families and friends online. Our kids went to school online and even graduated online. We shopped, entertained ourselves, threw parties online, and the world truly became connected.

I do wonder what would have happened if Zoom wasn’t ready when the pandemic hit. I love that the interface is intuitive and accessible. You can see as many people as you want at the same time with no limitations.

Technology transformed work from home, school from home, party from home during a global, crippling crisis. It transformed not a product or a service as much as it transformed us.

AC: There is no question that many of our work and educational activities transposed over to virtual spaces with a lot of success. But of course, many did not. In design education, for example, what we found particularly lacking was the studio experience: the silent camaraderie of a group of people working creatively in close proximity; the co-learning moments of, “wow, can you show me how you did that?” or “can I run a quick sketch by you?”; and of course, the frantic (and motivating) energy of a group of people working toward a looming deadline. It was really challenging to try to find ways to replicate these opportunities for creativity online.

Now, many schools are looking at an upcoming school year that may necessitate a hybrid model of teaching “roomies” and “zoomies” simultaneously. A few months ago, I did a ton of research, trying to learn about the state of hybrid learning, and there was almost nothing that came close to satisfactory. From a technology perspective, there are vexing challenges around audio and video (ensuring that zoomies can both see and hear roomies clearly; that the teacher can pay attention to both groups simultaneously; that any single A/V setup can address all of the different teaching and learning modalities in a classroom (lecture, discussion, groups, one-on-ones, etc.) It wasn’t just budgets either. I spoke to educators and technologists worldwide and put together a summary article and diagrams that provide some affordable starting points, but each entails real compromise. There is no silver bullet here.

On top of that, there is strong evidence that beyond the technological hurdles, one shouldn’t even try to pull this off from a pedagogical perspective. Some of the anecdotal stories range from teachers who worried so much about providing zoomies with an equitable experience that they essentially ignored the students in the room! Or of roomies not being able to hear anything at all because the windows were open for optimal ventilation—and it was noisy outside—they were all wearing masks, and they were seated six feet apart. Teachers remarked that the situation was just impossible.

What does this mean for businesses that are still under COVID-19 precautions? Again, it has so much to do with culture and hierarchy and the nature of the work being undertaken. The safe bet is somewhere in between remote and in person.

The most valuable insight that occurred to me through all of this? That how people spent their time when they were together, pre-pandemic, was probably highly underleveraged; that they could be doing the same things, to a similar level of competency, not together. So I think that everyone in the working world—not just operations managers or HR—has an extraordinary opportunity to reexamine exactly “what are we really doing when we are physically in the office?” in creative ways that unlock potential and optimize those interpersonal moments. The opportunities here represent one of the true silver linings.


Ken Carbone is a senior advisor to the Chicago firm 50000feet. He was formerly the cofounder and chief creative director of CSA, the Carbone Smolan Agency.